A 5-Letter Word Related to Crossword Skills? Try “Music”

A few years ago, I wrote a post discussing the curious intersection of music and puzzles. It centered around several studies about the effects both listening to music and performing music can have on individuals taking tests or solving puzzles.

There were two intriguing takeaways from these studies:

  • Both adults and children perform better on tests, puzzles, and problem-solving exercises when music is involved (ex.: if they listen to music before or during the test).
  • Children who are given music lessons often achieve greater heights in other subjects, including math and sports.

But it didn’t occur to me until much later that the connection between music and crosswords in particular has been in evidence for quite some time.

There are two 7-time champions in the history of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament: Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin. Think about that. Fourteen out of forty-one ACPT tournaments have been won by one of these men. Practically one out of every three!

And both of them have a musical background as pianists and music directors.

But they’re not the only ones. Constructor Patrick Blindauer, puzzler and actress Whitney Avalon, Lollapuzzoola co-founder Brian Cimmet, and even our own Director of Digital Games Fred Galpern are all musicians.

So what’s the connection between music and crossword puzzles?

No one can say for sure, but there are theories.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like John Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Crossword constructor and psychology professor Arthur Schulman — known for a series of seminars entitled “The Mind of the Puzzler” at the University of Virginia — would agree with that statement. He posited a correlation between word puzzles, math, and music, in that they all involve a quick and intuitive understanding of symbols. It’s about “finding meaning in structure.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Feyer built on this idea, stating that music, math, and puzzles all have pattern recognition in common, quickly recognizing combinations of blanks and spaces and mentally filling in possible answer words, even before reading the clues.

Now, clearly, musical skill and proficiency isn’t required to be a good crossword solver — I’d classify myself as a pretty good solver and I have an almost magical lack of musical talent — but it’s intriguing to ponder how puzzling could easily be wrapped up with a musical bow.

Do you know any other puzzlers with a musical background, or are you a lyrical solver yourself? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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5 Questions with Actress, Musician, Comedian, and Puzzler Whitney Avalon

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Whitney Avalon as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Whitney is a quadruple threat, splitting her time between acting, music, comedy, and puzzles, leaving her distinctive mark on each field. You may have seen her on The Big Bang Theory, in the Cheerios commercial during this year’s Super Bowl, or in the delightful viral video series IKEA Heights (which was secretly shot in an IKEA during working hours).

Then again, you might have seen one of her songs or parodies on YouTube, or solved one of her puzzles in GAMES Magazine. When you’re dealing with someone as creative and prolific as Whitney Avalon, you’re bound to have stumbled across her work somewhere.

Whitney was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Whitney Avalon

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

That I can blame, with great joy and gratitude, on my parents. My dad has worked in computers since before most people really knew what computers were, and he started me as a toddler on simple graphical puzzles (“One of these shapes is not like the other” springs to mind) and programming languages. Growing up in a family of thinkers meant I got to fall in love with wordplay, logic, and eureka moments. Lucky me!

[Whitney’s vocal chops are on display in this marvelous song about
spending too much time on the Internet, “Going Down the Rabbit Hole.”]

2.) You’re an actress, writer, comedian, and singer, but you’ve also had puzzles published in GAMES Magazine and other outlets. Do you have a particular favorite creative activity or one you wish you could devote more of your time to?

I’m one of those people fortunate enough to have always had one overriding passion (creating) who then gets to make a living pursuing that passion every day. So while the tide ebbs and flows – after all, I don’t get to choose when a TV show casts me, but I’m happy to drop everything else for a while every time one does – I love all the different ways I can make stuff that others might enjoy. I try to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to the next creative project in front of me, even and especially if it’s nothing like the one just completed!

3.) Has constructing puzzles influenced how you approach putting together videos, songs, or other visual media? Or has working in so many creative fields influenced your puzzling style?

I think spending a lot of time solving and/or crafting puzzles has, perhaps, made me more likely to strive for innovation, in that the repetitiveness of certain traditional forms might mean I’d seek more out-there options when it’s my turn to make the rules. Or maybe having a vivid imagination makes me drawn to interesting, elaborate puzzles.

I’m probably not good at analyzing my brain from inside here, but there are definitely parallels between taking the viewer on a good journey through a film or song and taking him or her on a good journey through certain puzzles – one of my published works, for example, is a 1000-word short story that not only contains a solvable mystery but also an additional layer of meta-surprise the reader will discover as it’s read.

[In this pic, Whitney displays some fantastic grayscale makeup
work and costuming. You can check out her tutorial here!]

4.) What’s next for Whitney Avalon?

More television appearances and commercials! (Including Girl Meets World on Disney Channel.) More writing! More singing! (I front pop rock band Strangely Attractive.) And, I surely do hope, more puzzles! (Most likely to appear as exclusive content in my monthly newsletter.) I can’t wait to see where the creative winds take me this year, and I’d be delighted if folks want to join me on my travels. I’ll always do my best to make you smile, laugh, and think.

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring content creators, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Take a moment to ponder how improbable it is that you exist at all. Grin. Be kind. Have fun. Revel in your glorious good fortune.

Many thanks to Whitney for her time. You can follow her on Twitter (@whitneyavalon) for the latest updates, watch her videos and songs on YouTube, check out her website, and sign up for her monthly newsletter! There’s no telling what entertaining endeavors she’ll have for us next.

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